word count

Something is better than nothing – a writing motto

When I’m well and into the swing of a project, I can happily churn out at least 3K per day and usually 4.5-6K at the end. With editing, 10 pages is a minimum.

But sometimes the words or edits just won’t come. Either I’m under the weather, or my brain is solving a problem, or I just don’t quite know how to get from where I am to the next plot point, or I’ve got some paperwork to sort (noooooooo! not the paperwork!!!!!!!! It’s worse than the writing!!!!!!!).

For whatever reason, sometimes I just can’t settle into a rhythm of work and it’s more than just an issue of getting started (if it’s that, do a writing sprint or make a pact with an author friend). Sometimes it’s a bigger problem and I’m stuck in a rut for days on end. When that happens, I keep myself going with a motto that really goes against the grain for me:

Something is better than nothing.

It’s not a motto to let myself off being lazy – I’m a ‘progress, progress, be productive, make progress’ person. Instead, it’s a motto to comfort myself when I can’t work and it’s not a fixable problem. Right now, for instance, I’m struggling to get anything done because I’ve had suspected Covid-19 since March 2nd and, though I’m getting longer spells between cycles of the fever-cough-exhaustion, it’s obviously not done with me yet. Even so, I’ve managed to edit one book and put a fresh polish-edit coat of paint on two others. I did this by telling myself – all day, every day – that

Something is better than nothing.

Some days I did a single sentence. A few days I didn’t even manage that. If I didn’t, I tried to read at least one high-quality piece about writing or books or screenwriting or history or art… something to feed my knowledge and imagination. And then I tried again to do at least one sentence. And if I managed that, then I tried for a paragraph, a page, until I couldn’t do any more. Sometimes that added up to very little, but even a sentence is a something instead of a nothing.

Some days things went well and I did a real chunk of work and of course that helped a lot – though it was extra dismal to plunge from a day like that into ‘I put a sentence in. Then I took it out. Then I spotted a typo in the next sentence. Now I’m done, brain dead, gone, bye, I’m a zombie now and zombies don’t write/edit’.

Still, slowly but surely all the somethings added up. Not half as quickly as I wanted, but they got me there. And though I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner/writer/what-have-you, I’m also a professional and I know that when something’s not working I need to put a new tool in my toolbox to help me fix the problem and keep me ticking on towards my goals – I can’t just sit there and wait for it all to get easier (word to the wise: ain’t happening).

Something is better than nothing‘ is a great tool. Just remember, it’s there for when you really can’t – not as an emotional sop for when you can but won’t.



Anatomy of a short story: Part II – Concept

crocuses in the snow

We’re all part id, part super-ego and part ego: we’re all sometimes ‘me’, sometimes ‘we’ and sometimes ‘I’. So I decided that my story would consist of three parts.

It begins with ‘me’: with the id.

The main character (who remains unnamed) lies in bed, in the first stages of wakefulness, suspended between the worlds of sleep and waking. This is a realm controlled by the id.

The world outside my window is alive with wild little sounds in the early-morning, when humans are still in bed and fantastic creatures can creep through the dew, safe from prying eyes in the dazzle of the white, new-born light.

My senses stretch out until my shadows goes creeping away under the light from the window, then down and down the small, dark space behind the drainpipe to touch the salamander, basking in the fire of the light on the edge of the wall, where the red peony and the marigold will soon be an inferno.

And now my shadow throws itself huge and wide against the wall, reveling for a moment in the light, then surging upwards, returning to me: racing back up in the cool, sweet shadow under the drainpipe and in through the window to join me, lying languid in the sheets.

The reference to the shadow is a nod towards Forbidden Planet, while the focus on magical creatures hints at The Tempest and Caliban’s control over the natural world.

The technical challenge here is to write using only the pronoun ‘me’ (with the related possessive ‘my’) to refer to the main character, never ‘I’. It’s harder than you’d think: not quite a task for members of the Oulipo school but edging that way. (The Oulipo school, in case you’re wondering [and I would be too if my PhD supervisor hadn’t been an Oulipo enthusiast], is a group of writers and thinkers who believe that creativity is set free by constraints. So, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, they consider it a Good Idea to write books without using the letter ‘e’. While I admire and applaud their puzzle-solving ingenuity, I can’t help feeling there are bigger and better issues for a writer to worry about. But each to their own.)

So, back to the story… Next, the bedroom door comes flying open and in rush the kids and suddenly the narrative voice adopts the pronoun ‘we’ (with the related possessive ‘our). The children, and their father, are sometimes ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘they’ (and even ‘I’ when they speak), but the narrator is never ‘I’ or ‘me’.

Half an hour later, we’re in the kitchen, spilling orange juice and dropping egg yolk on pyjamas and arguing over who’ll get the last of the strawberry jam, and yawning and wondering where all the hours of the night went and how morning has come so quickly.

… Before that, we have to brush our teeth and our hair and get dressed, and clean up the kitchen and stack the dishes and feed the cat and pick up the stuff strewn all over the family room. And it’s ‘Did we manage to get petrol yesterday, darling?’ and ‘Mummy, I can’t find my hat!’ and ‘Mummy, can you fix this?’ and the cat yowling as it winds around our ankles, neglected in the rush.

Sometimes I use the pronoun ‘it’ (mostly in the form of it’s = it is) to disengage what is being done from the characters, almost as if things are happening of their own accord: the washing up ‘gets done’ (passive voice) rather than ‘Mummy does the washing up’. This hints at the fact that the use of ‘we’ is (at least sometimes) ironic: ‘Did we manage to get petrol yesterday, darling?’ This is a theme that becomes more prominent as the story continues.

We spend lunch flinging peas about the kitchen, watching them bounce off cabinets and roll behind the toaster while we’re trying to remember where they’ve all gone so we can fish them out afterwards, before they end up squished and mouldering and sprouting blue toadstools behind the tea-tin.

The middle section of the story (the ‘we’ section) is a bit too long but I don’t yet have the distance from writing the story to make the necessary cuts. I’m happy with the writing, but the point being made is be-laboured: there is too much detail. Some is necessary to the story, but not all. Hopefully the odd hints of humour help to leaven the heaviness of the flab that I’ve yet to cut away.

However, to put this in context, the whole story is just over 1900 words: 525 for the ‘me’ section, followed by 1030 for the ‘we’ section, ending with ‘350’ for the ‘I’ section. The balance is probably right, give or take, as I’ll discuss below.

One of the reasons that the middle section is (relatively) long, not to mention dense and breathless, with long run-on sentences, is that it’s intended to catalogue the enormous number of big and small tasks that the woman accomplishes, all the time referring to her actions in caring for her family as being performed as a group: as ‘we’. Touches of humour (or at least attempted humour) interject a note of wry self-deprecation to (try to) enhance the impact of the irony implicit in her use of ‘we’: it’s not that the woman is unaware that she’s the one doing all the work, but she doesn’t see herself as a martyr and she’s certainly not sorry for herself. This is just the way it is in families sometimes. There’s sometimes a degree of frustration (and quite a bit of tiredness) but the emphasis is on the fact that she’s too busy (and not necessarily unhappy about it) to dwell on the fact that her needs are all phrased as ‘we’ but those of the rest of the family are often expressed individually.

About two-thirds of the way through the long ‘we’ section – just when this part might seem to be getting too long, too ‘same-y’ – I drop a hint of the tension that will propel the story towards its climax.

But, oh, there are crocuses out in the garden. Snowdrops under the hedges. But we’re hunting for jackets and scarves and hats discarded by our visitors instead of going out to look.

This is the first real sign that the main character’s wishes diverge from those of the rest of the family. Here, she speaks to the reader in a voice that might as well adopt the pronoun ‘I’. Then the story dives back into the ‘we’ narrative until the day finally draws to a close. The children go to bed. Their father retreats to his study.

And there I am in the kitchen, with the washing machine rattling against the cabinet and the water slopping around inside as if to say ‘Shh, shh, shhhh!’ and it’s dark, all dark, outside in the garden. I press my face to the glass but the snowdrops don’t glow in the moonlight.

Alone for the first time since the children threw her into full wakefulness (thus ending the ‘me’ section at the beginning of the story), the woman can disentangle her view of the world from that of the other members of her family. And instead of sitting down and whinging quietly to herself about how put upon she is (and what a drip we’d think her if she did), she slips into her husband’s wellies, grabs a torch and giggles her way down the garden path in the dark to look at the crocuses. Here is a woman who may often be caught up in looking after others, but she’s got no lack of self-determination: no lack of drive to fulfill her own desires when time and space allow. When she falls into the ‘we’ of the middle section of the story, we can now see this as a choice: it may be an altruistic one, but it’s no less what she wants for that.

… and there, in the harsh white light, are the snowdrops and the crocuses… But, oh, they look so wet and sorry for themselves as they cower away from the light: it strips away the depth of their colours and flattens their shapes so they look drab as rotting fabric listing out of plastic stems and calyxes.

The story ends with a reflection on the fact that perhaps just a little more balance is needed in her life. It’s not that the woman feels that being part of a ‘we’ is a problem or that she wants more ‘me’ time, only that there’s not quite enough of the ‘I’ in her life: that bridge between the ‘we’ and ‘me’, between altruism and selfishness. Hence the title of the story: ‘Somewhere In Between’.

And there we go. From theme to concept to smaller choices about structure and shape, and from tension to technical issues and word choice, that’s how I set about writing this story.

If you’re still with me and would like to read it… please watch this space! Or, if you’re feeling helpful, perhaps you’d consider commenting with some suggestions about magazines or journals that might publish it…

Long colonade

When is it good to be average?

How long is a book?

Now, the retort to this seemingly stupid question is ‘How long is a piece of string?’ but it’s really not that simple. Unless you’re a famous writer, agents and publishers have fairly set ideas about what a ‘book’ is. And one of the key parameters is length.

(BTW, in case you’re wondering, I’m cross-posting here and on The Bone Dragon. As a rule, I won’t be doing that but as having a specific bearing on TBD,this seemed like an issue of general interest [going from comments on other people’s posts on this issue].)

Novellas don’t sell (unless you’re super-famous). Short stories don’t sell very much (unless you’re super-famous or win a major award). Short novels don’t tend to sell (unless you’re super famous). I hope you’re sensing a theme here.

Unless an author is already a well-established brand, then agents and publishers will put a black mark against a submission that doesn’t fall within an acceptable word count range. The black mark may not count your project out… but it might. And do you really want a black mark before the agent/publisher has even got to the synopsis, let alone your sample material?

The ‘acceptable’ word count range for a book depends on its genre. But it’s generally wise to be wary of brick-like tomes. Why? Because they’re expensive to produce: there’s more editing involved, more page-setting, more pages… And that means that publishing the book is a bigger risk. To get a ‘yes’ on a very long book, it needs to be better than an average length book to compensate for the extra risk. The reverse is not true with short books because readers want to feel they’re getting their money’s worth: they don’t want to spend the same amount on something that’s half the size.

So book length is an area in which you really do want to aim to be average: for once, that’s the ideal.

Now, The Bone Dragon has proven contrary in many ways. It took me a very long time to write it – not in actual writing hours, but in how many years it was gradually written over. Usually, once I have a really detailed plan for a novel, I sit down and write it in under a month. The Bone Dragon took several years. Other things kept on getting in the way (including the rib in a pot that was the inspiration for the book in the first place)… but more on that another time.

The Bone Dragon also took a relatively short amount of time to edit. And when I did finally finish writing and start editing, my main goal was to make it longer. Longer!

Usually I set myself a word count target for how much I’m going to slim a manuscript down by in order to push myself to remove the ‘flab’. But, with The Bone Dragon, I needed to build the manuscript because for some reason that still escapes me the word count on the first draft (no matter how many times I rechecked it) told me that my book – the most intricately plotted book I’d ever written – was less than 47,000 words!

I still think the only explanation is that some of the words are hiding behind each other… because of the Dragon, you understand.

Anyway, thanks to many wonderful friends I started identifying what was missing. This was critical because I was determined that, having finally written a book that really did have little to no flab, I wasn’t going to edit in unnecessary material. On the other hand, the word count was a big, thorny problem: no one was going to want the book at that length. And there was no reason for me to risk having it rejected purely because of the length.

There was plenty of plot, even in the first draft. So why weren’t there enough words? (out, out, cowardly words! Stop cowering and show yourselves!)

Learning to identify what was missing instead of trying to spot what wasn’t needed was an interesting challenge. But gradually the word count crept up. I reached the 50K milestone… The 55K milestone… Praise be, the 60K milestone!

At this stage, I started doing some reading to figure out the lowest word count I was likely to get away with. Here are some of the most useful sources I found:




The consensus seems to be that for any ‘adult’ genre, 60K was the absolute minimum number of words, while 70K was a happier minimum and 80-90K (or even up to 100K) was ideal. Now, romance novels generally do better on the lower end of this. Thrillers vary: light thrillers (‘cosy murder mysteries’ for instance) tend to lower end, while spy thrillers and big airplane-read action novels tend to the higher end. Literary fiction has greater flexibility. Chick lit comes somewhere in the middle (though it tends towards the short end of the scale). Fantasy and sci-fi can go really, really long if you’ve got an epic enough story (NB: series are generally what agents and publishers want, so make sure you shouldn’t be splitting your enormous tome into a trilogy… unless you’ve got a trilogy of tomes anyway). Young adult starts at about 45K and goes up to 80K (usually).

As for The Bone Dragon… Well, it’s not immediately clear what genre it belongs in, though I’m hoping this is because it has cross-over potential rather than because it falls between two camps. I think it would market best as a literary crime novel or as young adult. Generally cross-over books start as young adult/children’s and move over into the adult market, so that’s been worth bearing in mind as I struggled to work out what to do about the length.

The final word count is under 68K. This means that it’s happily above the 60K bare minimum and verging on the OK lower limit for an adult novel though it is still short for adult fiction. It’s just fine for young adult, however.

So that has helped to dictate my submission approach… After all, while an author should theoretically be free to make a book as long or as short as it needs to be, a writer who wants to get published needs to face facts: agents and publishers care about length. So I do too. I don’t want agents/publishers to look at my cover letter and be ready to bin my synopsis and sample chapters simply because the word count isn’t what they’re after. If I’m going to fail, I definitely want to fail at a higher bar than that!

So there you go. Word counts don’t make a book. But they can stop a book making it on to the shelves.

And, after all, there’s nothing to stop you asking your publisher if you can add/cut down once you’ve already sold them on your story. Get a contract with a book that’s within the right limits and then, if the word limit has been hampering you, see if you can negotiate to adjust the manuscript to be the length that is needed to tell the story your way. You have to be willing to accept a ‘no’ – I wouldn’t advise taking this path if you’re prepared to tear your contract up if the publisher decides not to negotiate on this point – but if you are willing to make a ‘no’, then the worst the publisher can say is ‘We like it like this.’ You’ll still have a book on the shelves after all. Not exactly a bad result.